Superstitions And Habits At The Bench: Sensible, Or Just A Little Bit Odd?

on 13th of April, 2012 in Organization & Productivity
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About the Author:
I've been at the University of Kent for about seven years now. I did my undergraduate degree here in Biomedical science and was offered a PhD in animal genetics, where I am investigating the role of the porcine glucocorticoid receptor in aggression and metabolism. I have about eight months left of my PhD and while writing up decided to write some articles about the more difficult aspects of my work to hopefully try and help point you guys in the right direction if you have similar methods to try to me!

Everybody is different when it comes to how they like to run their work space.  Some people just find a space in the lab and work wherever there’s room, sharing their tips and pipettes, while others like to have a designated area to do their lab work in, with their own equipment.

Personally, I much prefer the latter, as I’m a bit of a control freak!  I like to have my own working area where I know exactly what’s been on it and what’s been used.  I hate the idea of contamination and do everything I can to stop it!

Here is a list of the top ten crazy things I do at the bench purely out of habit and superstition:

  1. I like to keep tabs on how many times my pipette tips have been opened and closed and what DNA has been around them.  That way I can pinpoint where any contamination has come from.
  2. I currently have about 3 bottles of RNase/DNase free water open my bench all with different labels on and each one is for a particular experiment!
  3. I NEVER touch anything without gloves on. I think this one is going too far, but I just don’t know what other people have touched and then touched other equipment, so my motto is: better safe than sorry!
  4. I hate ethidium bromide with a passion and have a designated lab area with pipettes and tips specifically reserved for using it. I always give new people talks about ethidium bromide safety and how not to spread it around.  I think this is quite sensible; however, my colleagues always roll their eyes when I launch into my safety speech!
  5. I always change my tip after I’ve used it once, even if it hasn’t touched anything, purely as a precaution.
  6. Unused PCR tubes, once tipped out of the bag, get discarded – you don’t know what’s got on them while out of the bag that might later contaminate your experiment!
  7. I cover PCR plates in between pipetting to ensure that no aerosols drop in to the reaction.
  8. I have specific lab stationary that does not leave my bench, that way if people have borrowed it to label things in the ethidium bromide/formamide areas, it’s not being spread all over my desk!
  9. I always label tubes with the hinges pointing upwards, that way if you can’t tell the difference between a 6 and a 9 then you know which way you labelled it and the problem is sorted!
  10. I always put tubes in the centrifuge with the hinges facing outwards, that way if you have an invisible pellet then you will always know where it is in the tube and don’t risk tipping it away or not re-suspending it properly.

The rest of my colleagues think I take it a bit too far, but it’s how I feel the most comfortable doing science!  What do you think?  Is all this necessary or just OCD?  What are your habits at the bench … do you have any that are weirder than mine?!

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6 thoughts on “Superstitions And Habits At The Bench: Sensible, Or Just A Little Bit Odd?”

  1. Avatar of James Lloyd James Lloyd says:

    If these things keep you happy then that is all that really matters but I have to say I think most are OTT. The senior post-doc in our lab rarely uses gloves, except in the most toxic. He manages to avoid most contamination. Simple mortals like me still use our labcoat and gloves and sometimes get contamination.

    The EtBr thing is probably the most OTT. I always wear gloves when near it but only because I wear gloves around most parts of the lab where we use DNA and/or chemicals (for its safety not just mine). EtBR is really not very dangerous! It is used as treatment of African sleeping sickness in cattle and there is no increase in cancer or birth defects and the concentration is a lot higher than we use (and I assume no one hear wastes it by drinking it anyway). Here is a nice blog post on the topic my advisor sent me.

    http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com/2006/10/heresy-about-ethidium-bromide.html

  2. Nick says:

    I think most good scientists I know have at least a little touch of OCD about them :)

    James – I agree with you about EtBr… here's my take on it: http://bitesizebio.com/articles/ethidium-bromide-a-reality-check/

  3. Emily Crow says:

    I store my pipettes and pipette tips in volume order. From left to right: 1 mL, 100 uL, 10 uL. It drives me crazy when people borrow them and put them back in the wrong order!

  4. Although acknowledging that Nick might be right about good scientists and OCD, I prefer common sense over superstition (and I'd say your points 9 and 10 fall into the common sense category).
    Although it's everybody's own business, I will admit that other people's paranoia sometimes makes me laugh. But, I dislike it with a passion when somebody's superstition overrules common sense: eg when they wear gloves all the time, going in and out of labs, touching equipment, supposedly to protect themselves and their samples, thereby risking to contaminate door knobs, elevator buttons, etc.
    The often-heard 'excuse' when pointing this out is "they're clean". Well, I can't know or trust that. And if they are clean, then maybe it was not so crucial to wear them in the first place.
    When I first learned the 'maximum 1 glove on the hallway'-rule, it made total sense to me, so I made it a reflex to take one or both off when leaving a lab. Unfortunately, this is not common practice in my research building.
    Thus, I'd say that everybody is free to be superstitious as much as they like (and I'm free to chuckle about it a little), as long as general safety guidelines (I'd say common sense) is respected.

    Other than that; I mostly organise my tubes based on colour; I guess that won't count as superstition, but even more so as just a little weird? But hey, if it makes me happy, it can't be that bad!

  5. Avatar of Heliothis Åsa says:

    Just as Emily, I want my pipettes in order according to their volume. And I want all things "in their place" because that makes it so much easier for me to work fast and get things done. I only wear gloves when I need it (RNA work, toxic substances…). My lab mantra is basically "know thy work", i.e. as long as I am aware of what I'm working with and my methods/techniques I'm good.

  6. I dont think any of the things you mentioned above are signs of OCD. Because I follow those myself and almost everyone in our lab does. Except the 1st and the 6th one, I think they are just too much. But I agree with you – better safe than sorry.

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